Retired Columbus County Schools Superintendent Dan Strickland confirmed Tuesday morning that he has declined a request by an ad hoc committee of the county commissioners and city and county school boards to bid on serving as a consultant to make a recommendation on whether the county and city school systems should merge.
The ad hoc committee was formed at the suggestion of Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Columbus, and Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, and is tasked with hiring an outside independent consultant to study the issue of school merger and make a recommendation to the county commissioners.
Members of the ad hoc committee are Commissioners Amon McKenzie and Ricky Bullard, county school board members Monte Herring, who serves as committee chairman, Barbara Yates-Lockamy and Randy Coleman, and city school board members Coleman Barbour, who serves as committee vice chair, Greg Merritt and Kandle Rogers.
The ad hoc committee, at its last meeting in early May, came up with a list of nine firms and individuals – including Strickland – to ask to bid on doing the consulting work.
Bullard proposed Strickland, who retired as Columbus County superintendent of schools, later retired as Marion (S.C.) schools superintendent and now works for the Florence (S.C.) schools, but Merritt characterized the search as a “witch hunt” if Strickland’s name remained on the list.
Merritt said after Strickland’s name was proposed, and he reiterated Tuesday, that he has nothing against Strickland and considers him to be a qualified and fine person but felt that, given Strickland’s years of employment with the county system, Strickland could not serve impartially. After the committee’s last meeting, he said that if Strickland’s name was left on the list of proposed consultants, he would refuse to participate in any other ad hoc committee meetings and would encourage his fellow Whiteville city school board members to do the same.
The ad hoc committee was formed late last year after Jones and Britt appeared before county commissioners to urge its creation. Earlier, commissioners had tried to defer a decision on merger to state legislators after the city and county school boards passed conflicting resolutions. The city school board opposes merger, while the county board favors it. Commissioners tried to bump the decision to the legislators, but Jones and Britt replied that state law clearly makes commissioners, not the legislature, responsible for such a decision and it was against that backdrop that they appeared before commissioners to urge creation of the ad hoc committee to hire a consultant to make a recommendation about merger.
After Strickland’s withdrawal from consideration, the list of proposed consultants includes:
Evergreen Solutions, a Florida consulting firm proposed by Merritt; Rives and Associates, a Cumberland County consulting firm also proposed by Merritt; Asheville schools attorney John Metcalfe, also proposed by Merritt; Tharrington and Smith, a Raleigh law firm proposed by city school board member Coleman Barbour; Thompson, Price, Scott, Adams, a Whiteville CPA firm proposed by city school board member Kandle Rogers because the firm already does the audits for both systems; Research Triangle Institute, proposed by county schools Chairman Barbara S Yates-Lockamy because “they’ve done lots of studies and have a good reputation”; Ben Matthews, formerly with the Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), also proposed by Yates-Lockamy; and Phillip Price, a retired DPI chief financial officer proposed by County Superintendent Alan Faulk and City Superintendent Kenny Garland.
At the ad hoc committee’s request, County Manager Mike Stephens was tasked by the county commissioners with contacting the proposed consultants to inquire about their interest in conducting a study. Thus far, Strickland is the only one of the nine to tell Stephens he is not interested.
Stephens has received some replies, all positive, from other potential consultants but was hesitant to discuss numbers until he has heard from all to whom he wrote letters. After he has gotten replies from the candidates, he plans to give a list of those interested to Herring.
In another action related to the ad hoc committee, county commissioners Monday night defeated a motion to suspend the activities of the ad hoc committee.
Commissioner Edwin Russ made a motion, seconded by Charles McDowell, for the committee to halt its activities because, although the term was not used in either Russ’ motion or in the short discussion that ensued, McKenzie essentially is a “lame duck” after having lost his bid for re-election in last month’s Democratic primary and because another ad hoc committee member, Yates-Lockamy, could become a lame duck if she is successful in her bid to unseat Rep. Jones in the November general election.
Commissioner James Prevatte voted with Russ and McDowell to halt the committee’s activities, while Commissioners Ricky Bullard, Buddy Byrd and Trent Burroughs voted no. McKenzie broke the tie with a no vote.